By Ron Stauffer
YOSEMITE, Calif. — In January 2016, Yosemite National Park Superintendent Don Neubacher announced that a new organization had been hired to run the concessions inside the park. As part of the transition, a quirky change was also going to be made: five major landmarks in the park will have their names changed.
The Ahwahnee Hotel is now the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, Camp Curry is now Half Dome Village, the Wawona Hotel is now Big Trees Lodge, Badger Pass Ski Area is now Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area, and Yosemite Lodge at the Falls is now Yosemite Valley Lodge.
Why did a seemingly-routine change in government contractors require renaming some of the park’s most well-known destinations? The answer is complicated. And to some, maddening.
The crux of the issue is a dispute between the National Park Service and the former contractor, a subsidiary of Delaware North Companies called DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite Inc., which has operated the park’s concessions since 1993.
Before losing their contract renewal, DNCY trademarked many of the names of the park’s landmarks, without telling (or asking) the park service.
If that seems odd, it gets worse. Neubacher’s announcement in 2016 states that DCNY even filed an application to trademark the name “Yosemite National Park,” which would make them the legal owners of the title of the entire park.
Adding insult to injury, the company is in litigation with the park service in a Federal Claims court, demanding $44 million in exchange for these names, according to court documents. The park service has disputed the legality of DCNY’s ownership of the names and is fighting the massive fee.
In the San Francisco Chronicle, an article called “How Yosemite lost its historic names — and may win them back” published on March 11, 2016, claims that the park service had to pay more than $1.7 million to create temporary signs to cover over existing signage.
All of these developments are two and a half years old. What has happened since then?
That is precisely what I intended to find out when I visited Yosemite this summer. I wanted to know how park patrons, some of whom have been coming to the park for decades, were responding to the changes. I wanted to ask about the status of the legal challenge, and see how the park service was handling the awkwardness of the temporary signs.
With pen and paper in hand, I walked around Yosemite Valley trying to talk to anybody on staff that would speak to me. That number turned out to be surprisingly small. Almost nobody would give me a straight answer, or even any answer, at all.
My first stop inside the valley was at the post office. A member of my party asked an attendant at the window if he could purchase a Yosemite-themed postage stamp T-shirts to replace one he had bought many years ago.
The attendant explained that he “couldn’t” sell him a t-shirt. When asked why, he explained that it was because of the new rules since the change in concession contractors.
This intrigued me, so I went back into the post office, and asked an attendant named David Carlson if I could speak to someone about these new rules.
Carlson told me he couldn’t speak to the issue at all and said I’d need to ask the postmaster, John Reynolds, who wasn’t there but would return in a few hours. A few hours later, I returned, as promised, and asked to speak to the postmaster as planned.
Carlson then told me Reynolds “won’t talk, even off the record.” I asked who else I might speak to about the issue, and Carlson shook his head and said “He is the man. He’s the man.” I’d hit a dead end. There was no one else I could ask.
I walked over to the front of the visitor center, and asked a woman at one of the many Nature Conservancy “information booths” in the park.
She became nervous when I brought up the topic. She cautiously looked around before responding and asked that I not use her name.
“We’re not supposed to have a stance,” she said. “They tell us to stay neutral.”
I assured her I wasn’t asking her to take a stance, but only to comment on how people have responded to the name changes, and if it has resulted in any confusion for patrons who may be looking for landmarks under their previous names.
Although this was her thirteenth summer as a volunteer, and she would surely have enough history to offer an educated observation, she was wary to comment.
“Yes, it causes a little bit of confusion. But all the signs are changed,” she eventually claimed.
But what I found after walking for a few hours in the valley, is that not all of the signs are changed. There’s quite a variety of old signs and new signs peppered throughout the park.
I went inside the visitor center and stepped up to the counter manned by park rangers. I asked the first ranger I saw how I could contact the park superintendent to get an official comment on the matter.
Sharon Miyake, a ranger who was introduced to me as a supervisor told me “We’re not allowed to talk to people,” and instead offered to call the public affairs office. When it rang and nobody picked up, she wrote down two phone numbers and two names for me to call to ask. I was told to call and leave a message and I’d get a call back.
(Note: over a period of one week, I called both numbers and left two voicemails at each number. I never did received a call back.)
Undeterred, I casually walked around the valley, talking to as many informational volunteers and park rangers as I could to see what they would say.
I approached a ranger named Hazel Galloway after she gave a children’s presentation on Mount Lyell salamanders, and introduced myself as a journalism student who had a few questions about how people are responding to the name changes within the park.
She immediately clasped both hands together and said: “I really can’t talk to journalists, even journalism students.” Even when I clarified that I didn’t need an opinion but just wondered how many times she is asked about the old names, she politely refused, shaking her head and saying “I’m not going to be able to help you.”
I then spent the afternoon walking to the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee Hotel) and noticed that the directional signposts in the ground had not been updated, yet the traffic signs had. A plaque embedded in stone in front of the hotel’s lobby door denoted “The Ahwahnee” as a national historic landmark. This plaque sits right in front of windows with “Majestic Yosemite Hotel” etched in them.
Upon my return from the hotel, I met another informational booth volunteer who, finally, was willing to give me a straight opinion. Donna, whose last name on her nametag had been covered over in black sharpie pen, was shutting down her booth and folding tables when I walked up. She told me to make it quick since she was leaving. I asked the same question I’d asked everyone else—how visitors in the park have been responding to the new name changes. She interrupted me, giving her opinion before I could finish.
“They hate it. They hate them. I don’t like them. I have not found anybody who likes them. Many people that come here are old timers and they remember the old names and they want the old names back.”
Her quick and honest observation is the only straight answer I was able to get from anyone I spoke to. But I learned one thing during my quest: the park service has a nearly-bulletproof PR machine that has effectively sealed the lips of park rangers and informational volunteers.
I enjoyed my time in Yosemite but the creepily-similar talking points I received from everyone made me feel like I’d walked into the idyllic neighborhood in Connecticut where the Stepford Wives live happily in their robotic trance.
I hope the park gets some resolution on their legal battle soon. But I also hope, for the sake of the visitors that “hate” the new names, we could at least speak openly and honestly about the legal battle. After all, our national parks are owned by “we the people”—the taxpayers. This isn’t just a park service battle, it’s our battle.